Legacy Content

Toon Talk: Swiss Family Robinson Vault Disney 2-Disc DVD
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by Kirby C. Holt (archives)
May 29, 2002
Kirby reviews the recent DVD release from the Vault Disney series Swiss Family Robinson.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

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(c) Disney

Vault Disney Collection:
Swiss Family Robinson
Deluxe 2-Disc DVD Set
Treasure Island

“On this site July 17, 1805, the Swiss Family Robinson,
Composed of myself, my good wife and three sons, Fritz, Ernst and little Francis,
Were the sole survivors, by the grace of God, of the ill-fated ship Titus.
From the wreckage we built our home in this tree
For protection on this uncharted shore.”

The LaughingPlace Store

Swiss Family Robinson
2-Disc DVD
Standard VHS

Thus the adventures of the shipwrecked Robinsons, as told in the novel by Johann Wyss and the classic live action film produced by Disney and released in 1960, begun. Battling pirates, sharks and tigers, among other dangers, these Swiss immigrants, escaping political and religious persecution brought on by Napoleon in their homeland, overcame all odds to build their own society, ‘New Switzerland’, on this tiny, uncharted island somewhere in the South Pacific. And, oh yeah, they also built a really cool tree house.

As directed by Ken Annakin from a screenplay by Lowell S. Hawley, this Swiss Family Robinson, like a lot of Disney adaptations, has become the definitive version of the story. Expertly balancing equal doses of drama, action and humor, the film creates its own world that beckons you into its tropical splendor. Filmed entirely on location on the island of Tobago (south of Cuba, near Trinidad), the picture feels so real and authentic, in an ‘only-in-the-movies-but-who-cares-this is fun’-type of way. While watching Swiss Family, you’ll be so immersed in the action that such movie-watching leaps of faith as a globally diverse menagerie of animals on this one tiny isle and a horde of seemingly indestructible buccaneers hardly seems to matter.

All stops were pulled in the making of this film, very apparent in the gorgeous production values (beautifully captured here in all its Panavision, Technicolor glory in a wide screen transfer with THX amplified sound) and the top-caliber cast, lead by screen legends John Mills and Dorothy McGuire as Father and Mother Robinson. That they are able to imbue their roles without a hint of melodrama is a testament to their esteemed talents. A young and virile James MacArthur continued in his heroic literally roles as the resourceful Fritz, with Tommy Kirk as the intellectual Ernst and Kevin Corcoran as the precocious Francis. The lovely Janet Munro combines her girlishness with the right mix of tomboyisms as fellow castaway Roberta. Rounding out the international cast are Japan’s Sessue Hayakawa as Kuala, King of the Pirates, and Britain’s Cecil Parker as Roberta’s grandfather, Captain Moreland.

That the cast and crew were able to pull this timeless production off in the remotest of locations is impressive, even more so considering it was produced in the late Fifties, long before computer imagery and strict ASPCA guidelines. In this reverently compiled and awesomely designed two-disc DVD set, fans will get a generous look at how the making of Swiss Family Robinson was accomplished.

Bonus Features - Disc 1:

Audio Commentary:
Provided by director Ken Annakin and the three Robinson boys, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. An endearing respect is evident in the interaction between Annakin and the two older actors, forty-plus years after the making of the film. Corcoran was apparently recorded separately, and his comments seem out of place amid the otherwise engaging conversation between the other three participants.

The Top Ten Things We Learn From This Commentary:

  1. From the ‘Whatdaya Know’ Department: The shipwreck scene at the top of the movie was filmed with miniatures.
  2. ‘Annakin’s Ark’: All of the animals used in the filming had to be transported to Tobago via boat.
  3. Surprisingly, this was Dorothy McGuire’s first on-location shoot. And that is she, not a double, plunging into the water at the beginning of the film.
  4. On the Craft Services Menu: goat and dog meat.
  5. The pirate ship was actually a motorized boat with a façade built around it.
  6. The water contraption at the tree house was the idea of Walt Disney, who never visited the set.
  7. The make-up people had to mix suntan lotion into the cast’s make-up so that the harsh South Seas sun wouldn’t burn them.
  8. From the ‘You Don’t Wanna Know’ Department: The zebra trapped in the quick sand was made to kick with the use of electric shocks.
  9. “O, Christmas Tree” was a carol that Swiss Protestants would have sung at that time.
  10. The filmmakers decided not to use authentic Swiss accents in the film, as it would have proved to distracting to the audiences of the time.

There is a factual error in the commentary: Kirk mentions that Sessue Hayakawa won an Oscar for his work in The Bridge on the River Kwai. While he was nominated, he did not win.

Animated Short:
Donald Duck has his own desert island adventure in Sea Salts. Available to view either before the feature, or separately from its own menu choice.

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